The 10 Best L.A. Albums of the ’00s

Fiona Apple turned raw heartbreak into grand art on Extraordinary Machine.
Richard Burbridge


In 2006, Silver Lake was a fixture in L.A.’s local rock scene, home to interesting musical venues, and a musical community burgeoning in bungalows crouched in the shadows of freeways and hills. But nationally, Silver Lake’s music scene was being labeled by culture blogs as “a neighborhood to watch” and relegated to sidebars in national music magazines. Brooklyn was where the real indies lived. Elliott Smith and Beck were always name-dropped, but when the fuzzed-out, effervescent rockers Silversun Pickups released their phenomenal first full-length, Carnavas, Silver Lake had found a sound. Or so it seemed, as Carnavas appeared on the charts, was licensed to MTV shows, and became the figurehead for myriad bands on local labels searching for crossover appeal. With Carnavas’ success, record companies took Silver Lake seriously as a creative enclave that could also be a financially lucrative one. SSPU’s sound was much like Silver Lake itself, where noise and quiet could be shored upon each other, juxtaposing Brian Aubert’s psychedelic guitar, intertwined with his raspy, wafting voice. “Well Thought Out Twinkles” wrestles with harsh rock-outs, while “Lazy Eye” grows from straightforward jangle pop into a guitar-howling anthem. SSPU’s follow-up, Swoon, shattered expectations by landing in the commercial sphere, but Carnavas was where it all started. (Drew Tewksbury)



When this deceptively low-key album came out on the late, great Emperor Norton label in 2001, it quickly proved to be a valuable document of a blossoming Los Angeles sound. L.A.’s brave, idiosyncratic Dublab Web radio station, which curated the collection, had by then already made a major contribution to the city’s cultural scene by establishing a platform for varied strands of hip-hop-informed sonic incursions and experimental electronic music. The Freeways collection featured early works by several standouts in the backpack-unto-IDM-and-beyond realm, including fresh approaches by Daedelus, Dntel, Madlib’s crucial Yesterdays New Quintet and John Tejada. And not to overlook one of the most primo moments in any kind of music anywhere/anytime, Divine Styler’s classic “Shen,” as well as a heavily digitalized variant of folk enchantress Mia Doi Todd and world-jazz percussionist/composer Adam Rudolph. Somehow, and suddenly, it all made a perfect kind of sense. In the eight years since, most of these artists have gone on to prominence in the world at large, and have inspired a huge number of musicians in L.A.’s now-thriving experimental/electronic/hip-hop/nongenre scene, and Freeways remains an important record of a critical moment, and a prescient guide. (John Payne)



When Fiona Apple decided to wash that man right out of her hair, on her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine, the local singer-songwriter turned the raw material of her real-life romantic obsession and heartbreak into the stuff of grand art. In lesser hands, such lovelorn moping usually comes off as narcissistic and banal, but she managed to make it dramatically engrossing and universal. By the time Apple was done, it didn’t really matter who that real-life heartbreaker might have been or that there had been rumors of strains with her label, Sony/Epic — remember her fans’ “Free Fiona!” campaign? — and controversy when an earlier, leaked-to-the-Internet incarnation of the album produced by Largo fixture Jon Brion was ditched in favor of the version that was ultimately released, produced by Mike Elizondo with Brian Kehew (along with two of Brion’s key tracks). It all sounded wonderfully, cathartically sumptuous, from Elizondo and Kehew’s sleekly funky, trippy touches on “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)” and the dreamily insane, spiraling coda of “Get Him Back” to Brion’s delightful, old-timey clock unwinding on the title track. Even as Apple trilled the airiest and most delicate of melodies, she ruthlessly pumped her piano with uncommon power and the trademark rhythmic propulsion that drives her songs with a sleepwalker’s restless feverishness. Rummaging through mixed feelings on the affecting solo piano ballad “Parting Gift,” she avoided bitterness and ultimately found herself again, sending her former lover one last metaphoric kiss: “You were always good for a rhyme.” (Falling James)



Picking the best Madlib album is like searching for love at the Jersey Shore: It involves imbibing inordinate amounts of illicit substances, and any choice you make will probably get you burned. Since our worst Y2K fears were allayed, Oxnard’s Otis Jackson Jr., a.k.a. Madlib, a.k.a. Quasimoto, has released albums at a quick clip, most likely corresponding with spliffs smoked. He’s treated genres with a dilettante’s disregard but a maestro’s versatility. If you like your beats unalloyed, then you may favor the instrumentals of his Beat Konducta alias, with their cinematic forays into Blaxploitation, Bollywood and elegiac J Dilla tributes. If you only move in 4/4, his Blunts From the Bomb Shelter mix distills decades of Trojan Records dub into one addled hour. If you dig cool jazz, his Shades of Blue deconstruction of the Blue Note catalogue and his Yesterday’s New Quintet work satisfy the impossible demands of both beret-wearing snobs and backward cap–wearing heads. Champion Sound, his collaboration with J Dilla, established a sonic template for the next generation, and his Madvillain work with MF Doom is the consensus pick for underground rap album of the decade. So why The Unseen? Because under the Quasimoto mask, Madlib amalgamates everything that makes him great, the goofball helium-voiced humor, the psychedelic genius and the impeccable eclecticism, sampling everything from Scooby Doo and Melvin Van Peebles to David Axelrod and Diamond D to Augustus Pablo and Ahmad Jamal, reimagined in colors as bright as Orange Crush. The only thing that will burn will be the blunt you’ll be holding. (Jeff Weiss)




Figure 8 opens with the simple, clean melody of “Son of Sam,” and Smith’s voice jumps in. “Something’s happening, don’t speak too soon,” he opens, and it’s clear that this won’t be easy, but it will be special. The sheer focus and crispness that follow belie the aggressively sad, yet hopeful songs. They dig repeatedly at the heart: In “Wouldn’t Mamma Be Proud,” Smith warbles, “If I crawl to keep it together like you say you know I can do/to transmit the moment from me to you,” it’s enough to not swallow your tongue. The album arrived amid a musical transition. Two of the most prominent musical subgenres that flourished during the ’90s, grunge and hip-hop, felt like they had run their course. Grunge had given way to something called “nu metal” and hip-hop had taken on a cartoonish, materialistic/obsessed quality that seemed to mock its original antiestablishment roots. It’s hard to imagine, but there were no Strokes, except maybe in a dingy practice basement in Brooklyn. Then, like some zombie clawing his way to the surface, Elliot Smith arrived, fresh from Portland and putting down stakes with Figure 8. Its honest beauty inspired a decade of sad “emo” kids who took from him the pathos needed to snub their noses at mom and dad and any other bummer oppressors they’d encountered along the way. But Figure 8 also locked into the true tragic/magic quality of L.A., the way you walk among palm trees in the sun but feel like the loneliest person alive. Smith captured what it was like to be on the brink of the unknown, an unknown into which we are all tossed. With Figure 8, L.A. received a hometown masterpiece, and Smith had taken his place as a gifted son. (Nikki Darling)



It’s true that more people have heard Flying Lotus’ work in seconds-long blips bookending Adult Swim’s late-night lineup, but 2008’s Los Angeles should be catching up as word spreads of the movement its maker represents. In the last year and a half, this city’s beat music scene has ballooned outward from its weekly home at Lincoln Heights’ Airliner club to become an internationally heralded happening and a profound local force — easily one of the most exciting homegrown phenomena to emerge this decade. While folks like Nosaj Thing, Ras G and Shlohmo have released some excellent albums, no record better encapsulates the cold electronica, warm fuzz, synth wizardry and bass-heavy broken beats of the Low End Theory crew than FlyLo’s. Even without the backstory, his music sounds like the future — a place where jazzy grooves and heady percussion drift through fields of trance and spacey effects. And true to Los Angeles’ beatwise roots, what is almost certainly the best headphones record of our last 10 years is also a cone-exploding banger when sent coursing through a worthy sound system. Flying Lotus, a.k.a. Steven Ellison, is the Winnetka-raised great-nephew of Alice Coltrane. Much has been made of that connection. But though the young producer openly borrows from a progressive past (he even samples Alice on “Auntie’s Harp”), Los Angeles opens a window onto the sounds of an era we haven’t yet reached. (Chris Martins)



Considering her band Rilo Kiley’s alt-Americana roots, the lush rustic instrumentation and lilting stomp of Jenny Lewis’ debut solo outing didn’t exactly come as a surprise. What did, however, was the ginger-locked front woman’s transition from blog-beloved indie babe to bona fide Laurel Canyon songstress. Rabbit Fur Coat opens with the one-two punch of “Run Devil Run” and “The Big Guns,” the former introducing the world to the beauty-blaring harmonies of Lewis backed by the Kentucky-born Watson Twins, and the latter showcasing a subtler twang-laden vocal comeliness buttressed by a fantastic array of picks and plucks. With assistance from M Ward, Mike Mogis and Jonathan Rice, Lewis positions herself front and center, pushing that familiar fragile quaver to deeper, more depressive lows and yet higher, more swooning highs. “Rise Up With Fists!!!” brings to mind Emmylou Harris, while “Happy” checks Lucinda Williams. Lewis’ lyrics seem fashioned to fit a country perspective: steeped in God, love and wide-open spaces but tempered by life in L.A. That last point is particularly salient on the titular song, wherein Lewis seems to explain her days as a child-actor by way of her mother’s lust for finer things. “She was waitressing on welfare, we were living in the Valley,” Lewis breathily croons. “A lady says to my ma, ‘You treat your girl as your spouse / You can live in a mansion house’/And so we did, and I became a hundred-thousand-dollar kid.” The ends may never justify such means, but Rabbit Fur Coat proved Lewis’ worth in spades. (Chris Martins)




One could argue convincingly for the inclusion of No Age’s first studio album proper, Nouns, instead of Weirdo Rippers, which collects the band’s early songs from 2007 and 2008. Nouns is better-produced, has richer, thicker washes, and sounds like a band on the cusp of greatness. It’s just that Weirdo Rippers shreds, is a primal scream born in the belly of L.A. rock at the end of the ’00s: the punk club the Smell. It’s the album that planted a flag in downtown Los Angeles, the kind of claim-staking rock & roll cry that occasionally pops up in cities all over the world. After much so-called D.I.Y. community-building, No Age’s arrival was the two-man embodiment of something cool. You could make an argument for releases from Mika Miko, HEALTH or Abe Vigoda — or to go completely off the board, John Wiese’s masterful Soft Punk — as the most exciting bursts from the 2nd and Main, but No Age’s first CD release drew the most attention and became a ready-made classic. Now signed to Sub Pop, the band sounds sweet like My Bloody Valentine, messy like Treble Kicker–era Pavement, melodic like Husker Du, and funnels energy through Randy Randall’s thick, distorted Fenders and drummer Dean Spunt’s loose-limbed arm frenzy. All that potential, currently being realized, hisses through Weirdo Rippers. (Randall Roberts)



Incapacitated at Cedars-Sinai, racked by complications from lupus, hip-hop producer J Dilla exhausted his fast-fading cells to finish his requiem, Donuts, a melancholic masterpiece of vinyl hiss and tape loops, soul samples, air-raid sirens and unstinting groove. Released in 2006, three days before his death, both Dilla and Donuts now reside in the realm of myth: His work has prompted countless tributes from his peers, inspired an orchestral adaptation, and became an instant influence, stretching from the local tastemaker club Low End Theory to London and beyond. Reinventing instrumentalism like no album since DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, Donuts has in the past three years become the blueprint for every beat head with a copy of Ableton attempting to re-create Dilla’s alchemy of the supernal and the sorrowful. Imbued with a magician’s legerdemain, Donuts is so seamless that it feels effortless, like the sort of thing that anyone with a full crate could replicate. But they can’t. Though the samples are seldom esoteric — Lou Rawls and the Temptations, Dionne Warwick and the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and a whole lot of Mantronix break beats ­— Dilla on Donuts transforms the familiar into the fantastic, even if it’s via but a series of fragments. Only a single song exceeds two minutes. Celestial voices fade in and out like an angelic choir, reminding us of our fragile, fleeting existence, part meditation and part miracle. Only an album made by someone on the verge of death could be so full of life. (Jeff Weiss)



The opening lines of Beck Hansen’s eighth album, 2003’s Sea Change, offer the kind of hope that’s uniquely L.A.: hands on the wheel, moonroof open, cruising with the breeze, rolling toward the future. “Let the golden age begin,” sings Beck, and you think, “Oh, this is going to be a nice album.” Then he drops the chorus, and the song turns brown: “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try,” he confesses, minus the requisite lyrical curlicues that the self-proclaimed Loser had once been known for. Recorded in the spring and summer of 2002 after the dissolution of a relationship, Sea Change is Beck’s most personal album, a sad, sorrowful conduit into the singer’s lonesome heart. It’s the best breakup album of the decade, for sure, from L.A. or otherwise, up there with PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? in the ’90s, Elvis Costello’s Blood & Chocolate for the 1980s and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks of the 1970s. It’s messed up, pitiful, wallows in its own misery, and every once in a while offers some salve. Musically, it’s got that feel. Produced by Nigel Godrich, who at that point was becoming known for his work with Radiohead, Sea Change nails quintessential Southern California, thanks in large part to a team of musicians who understand the city and the sound: Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Smokey Hormel, Jason Falkner and Joey Waronker, among others. A few of Beck’s earlier records, One Foot in the Grave and Mutations, had hinted at the singer’s melancholia, but Sea Change went whole hog, conjuring helter-skelter mornings, sorry eyes that cut through bone, and cinders in the sky. It’s aimed not only at love but the loss of innocence (he was writing this a few months after September 11) — and alienation from L.A., too: “This town is crazy/Nobody cares,” he sings on “Lost Cause.” I know people who have a hard time listening to the album because it touched them at such a difficult moment in their lives. It seems like a lot of people were breaking up or freaking out in 2002, and Sea Change helped us endure it. (Randall Roberts)

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